Letter published in The American Prospect, Mar., 1999

Right-wing Bias in Talk TV

In his article on talk television ["Tough Chat," September-October 1998], Joshua Micah Marshall accurately noted that political panel discussions on CNN and elsewhere commonly pit hardcore right-wing advocates against centrist journalists, while omitting partisans of the left. Marshall goes on to dismiss the idea that "right-leaning bias" is at work by claiming: "It's just that conservatives are more adept at using a medium that responds well to unabashed partisanship and an adversarial form of political rhetoric."

This explanation is silly. Having spent more than a decade talking to network TV decisionmakers (hosts like Ted Koppel, and executive producers at CNN, CBS, and CNBC, for example), I've learned that the issue is indeed "right-leaning bias." On various occasions, I've provided lists of articulate progressive journalists, columnists, and think tankers who are "adept at using a medium that responds well to unabashed partisanship." But network executives are wary of these voices.

When looking for on-air "talent," TV decisionmakers -- including a few who are slightly liberal -- are more comfortable with partisans of the right wing than of the left. This is in part TV's effort to replicate the abridged spectrum of elite opinion, a spectrum that doesn't include the Ehrenreichs and Hightowers, the Naderites and labor folk. And in part it's TV's fear that bona-fide left-wing advocates will be quick to criticize corporate America, including sponsors and media owners.

To the extent that national TV has taken small steps toward balance by including a few genuine leftist pundits, it has often been the result of concerted criticism (when leading TV critics have attacked talk's right-wing tilt) and organizing to prod the gatekeepers to open up.

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